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British PM Sunak calls national election for July — a risk as his party lags in polls

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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced the country's next general election will be held in early July - this as his Conservative Party trails far behind their Labour opponents in national polls. As Willem Marx reports, Sunak's pitch to voters will focus on certainty and security.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: It's been 19 months since Rishi Sunak entered office as prime minister, days after his predecessor, Liz Truss, raised a financial storm that brutally battered the British economy. Sunak promised stability from the start of his premiership, and he walked outside Downing Street's famous front door Wednesday afternoon with a message that was brief and almost bullish.

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PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: I will fight for every vote. I will earn your trust, and I will prove to you that only a conservative government led by me will not put our hard-earned economic stability at risk.

MARX: A former hedge fund manager married to an Indian heiress, Sunak became leader almost by default after Truss, and Boris Johnson before her, had departed during a period of near-constant scandal and civil war in their Conservative Party. In his televised address to the nation, he boasted about his government's success in reducing inflation and boosting economic growth. But those were only two of the five major promises he'd made to the British public as prime minister. The other three, on irregular migration, hospital waiting times and government borrowing will remain far from fulfilled by the 4 of July election. And as Sunak defended his record, a torrential downpour of rain began. A nearby protestor used loudspeakers to drown out Sunak's words with a popular song, "Things Can Only Get Better." Sunak, standing outside in the British summer without an umbrella, could hardly have looked wetter.

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SUNAK: I hope that my work since I became prime minister...

MARX: His soaked suit supplying a strong visual metaphor - an inauspicious campaign start for a politician who prides himself on his appearance. With his Conservative Party some 20 points behind their rivals in national polls, Sunak's personal popularity numbers are hardly a source of pride either. Nevertheless, he still criticized his chief political opponent and likely successor, Keir Starmer, and his Labour Party.

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SUNAK: I'm guided by doing what is right for our country, not what is easy. Now, I can't say the same thing for the Labour Party because I don't know what they offer. And in truth, I don't think you know either. And that's because they have no plan. There is no bold action. And as a result, the future can only be uncertain with them.

MARX: The problem is, Starmer and Labour do seem to have a plan. In fact, Sunak's team issued a 20-page paper analyzing it only last week. Starmer himself released a campaign ad on social media in the middle of Sunak's speech...

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KEIR STARMER: After 14 years, it's time for change. Stop the chaos. Turn the page. Start to rebuild. Vote Labour.

MARX: ...Then, minutes later, addressed the waiting press cameras in person.

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STARMER: Look around our country - the sewage in our rivers, people waiting on trolleys in A&E, crime virtually unpunished, mortgages and food prices through the roof. It's all - every bit of it - a direct result of the Tory chaos in Westminster.

MARX: The election insisted Starmer would be an opportunity for change after 14 years of governments led by Conservatives or Tories that struggled through Brexit, the COVID pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis.

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STARMER: Our offer is to reset both our economy and our politics so that they once again serve the interests of working people.

MARX: Parliament will be dissolved next week, with five further weeks of campaigning then remaining before Election Day.

For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]